A new report released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that the number of juveniles in confinement in the United States has dropped from its peak of 107,637 in 1995 to 70,792 in 2010. During this same time, the rate of juvenile crime also dropped significantly. The overincarceration of juveniles is not necessary to enjoy a lower juvenile crime rate, the report finds, nor is the overreliance on prison-like facilities and punitive measures an effective or productive way to address juvenile crime.
Although the decline in juvenile incarceration is encouraging to advocates, there is still little reason to celebrate. The criminalization of youth behavior and the school-to-prison pipeline continue to feed young people into the criminal justice system. The United States remains the largest incarcerator of children in the industrialized world, with a rate nearly five times that of the second highest country. Rather than add to the 2.3 million adults who are incarcerated—in addition to the hundreds of thousands of people incarcerated in immigrant and counterterrorism detention centers—states should focus on employing more rational approaches to juvenile crime, such as incentivizing performance funding for state treatment programs, among other reforms.
The report calls on states to eliminate counterproductive financial incentives that encourage unnecessary reliance on juvenile incarceration. In a 2011 report, the Annie E. Casey Foundation highlighted performance incentive funding programs in which states award counties resources for local treatment and supervision programs based on whether the county lowers the number of youth sent to correctional facilities. The programs resulted in a substantial reduction in the number youth commitments to prison-like correctional facilities.
Similar performance incentive funding reforms should be implemented throughout the entire criminal justice system at the federal, state, and local level. Tying financial support to a set of meaningful metrics will help ensure that government funds are used on programs and policies that produce results. In fact, the federal government should act now to begin to implement such reforms in response to the budget stalemate. Policies that improve the rationality and effectiveness of the criminal justice system ought to be the norm. This would be a win for public safety, children, families, and the country.
Lawmakers and advocates would do well to consider the report’s recommendations not only for the juvenile justice system, but also for criminal justice at large. Enacting these and other rational reforms are critical in transforming how we as a nation address crime—an approach that should direct policy away from incarceration and toward community-based programs that actually work.